When talking about the New Light Art Prize, it’s necessary to place its importance into some kind of perspective.

Established in 2011, and due to be awarded for the seventh time later this year, this prestigious biennial open competition is specifically for artists with ties to the North, whether that be by birth or upbringing, residence or study. Among its previously shortlisted entrants are artists of the calibre of the empathetic portraitist of Brutalism, Mandy Payne

As the April 30 deadline for current submissions hurtles into proximity, New Light‘s development director and one of this year’s panel of judges, Rebekah Tadd, spoke to Northern Soul

Born in North Yorkshire, I wonder about Tadd’s first experiences of art. It turns out they could hardly have been any closer to home.

“My mother was a talented sculptor and art teacher,” she says. “She produced wonderful organic sculptures on a quite large scale, inspired by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.” While Tadd herself went on to study History of Art, her involvement with New Light had something of the quality of a happy accident.

Tree Sparrow by Christian Alexander Bailey

“Serendipity,” she confirms. “Annette Petchey, founder of New Light, and I are friends. We found ourselves discussing art, and a vacancy that had arisen. It was an amazing opportunity and the challenge I was looking for.”

Tadd continues: “New Light was created in response to a lack of opportunities for Northern artists to show their work in the region.” This lack of Northern exposure is, Tadd argues, compounded by the privileged position that London has annexed for itself in the art market. “The weighting has traditionally been to galleries there. However, the capital is still dominated by international galleries, with relatively few of these aimed at emerging or mid-career artists. It is therefore intensely competitive for artists to gain exposure.”

As Tadd sees it, recent events have only accentuated the problem. “Now, with the cost of living crisis, there is a trend for galleries to hold fewer exhibitions for a longer period of time. This increases the competition for artists to be represented in commercial galleries.”

If New Light’s ambitions are admirably inclusive, I wonder how Tadd views the £20 entry fee, charged for the entrant’s first two pieces.

“We rely solely on donations and sponsorship,” she says. “The entry fee enables us to provide specialist transport for the artwork between the tour venues, hanging and curation, as well as publicity.”

Certainly, the prizes themselves appear to open up a range of inviting opportunities. My own fancy was taken particularly by the Emerging Artist Award, sponsored by Manchester’s Saul Hay Gallery, which offers the enticing prospect of a solo show to its winner. The association between the gallery and New Light is one which Tadd herself values. “The relationship began in 2017, and the gallery hosted our retrospective in 2022. There is a shared ethos with Ian and Catherine Hay.”

Valuable in more obviously financial terms, the Valeria Sykes Award offers its winner £10,000. Tadd outlines how previous recipients have benefited, saying: “A winning artist is able to devote their time to developing their work. For instance, Josie Jenkins, who won in 2013, was able to finance a residency in China.”

Forlorn by Victor Harris

Moreover, the hope is that the successful candidates will pass on something of their experience. “The winner of the award is also invited to mentor the next winner,” says Tadd. The arrangement is similar with the Emerging Artist prize: “It also provides a year of mentorship from the Hays and the previous winner.” 

It seems that, almost as important as the prizes themselves, is this investment in nurturing relationships within the artistic community and beyond.

“The importance of the touring aspect of the prize cannot be overestimated. It is an opportunity for the artist to have their work seen by new audiences, sometimes beyond their own region for the first time.”

Looking outward from its Northern vantage point, the New Light Art Prize is one that brings the roaming camera of national attention to focus on the importance of region. In that, and in the doorways it opens to its winners, it has the potential to become a prominent landmark in our cultural topography.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Sorrowing Cloth by Joanna Whittle


The deadline for entries to the New Light Art Prize is May 14, 2023. For more information, click here.